Andris Poga ends his tenure as Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra this season. Last October he accepted the role of Music Director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra. Next week he makes his BSO subscription series debut, beginning Thursday, with a program featuring Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with Garrick Ohlsson, and Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony. Poga agreed to answer some questions from BMInt by email.
Benjamin Pestsky: Could you explain a bit about your general responsibilities as a BSO assistant conductor? Do you have other regular duties apart from the concerts you are scheduled to lead?
Andris Poga: The assistant conductor position at the BSO has two general lines: the scheduled concert series both in Boston and Tanglewood and covering a number of the concerts during the season in Boston as well as at the Tanglewood festival. Since I have worked here, luckily there has been no need to replace someone and I hope that will not happen in the future.
So there’s a system where you are specifically “on call” for some performances to step in to replace a guest conductor if need be?
Covering means not only to be as you said “on call.” It is also an opportunity to get very good experience through listening to the rehearsal, to be in touch with the guest conductors and the soloists and the great musicians of the BSO.
An orchestra will obviously have a particularly close relationship with the music director, and also with certain frequent guest conductors. In the same way, is there a particular flavor to the relationship between the BSO and its assistant conductors?
Of course there is a kind of relationship between the BSO and its assistant conductors and I think it’s mostly an educational one. You can get experience of the rehearsal techniques, get in touch with many conductors and soloists, and understand all the organization of the big machinery in one of the world’s top orchestras. You can learn incredible amount of repertoire and of course get an opportunity to conduct wonderful musicians. That is like a second conservatory, like a transition from theoretical to practical experience. In my opinion one should get through this experience to become a really professional conductor.
How do you go about learning a score for the first time? What all do you have to know, or have memorized, before you go in front of the orchestra?
First of all, I try to understand the score, but not mechanically memorize it. I don’t like to conduct by memory, I think it does not make any sense. Of course one has to know the score very well and understand how it works, but for the orchestra musicians I think it’s very important when the conductor helps them to play and knows exactly when to let them breathe.
So once you learn a piece, does it stay with you forever, or do you have to forget some pieces to make room to learn new ones?
When you really know the piece you’ll never forget it, but there are some details you understand only by experience and conducting the same piece again and again.
Let’s talk a bit about the pieces you’re conducting next week. Rienzi was quite popular in the first half of the 20thcentury, but it isn’t played too frequently these days and the BSO hasn’t done the overture on a subscription concert since 1968! Yet earlier this year Odyssey Opera performed the entire work in Boston, and now you’re bringing the overture to Symphony Hall. Do you think it’s gaining popularity?
I have done the Rienzi overture many times but never the entire opera. Because of the fact it has been partly written in Riga, this piece is very popular and frequently performed in Latvia.
So when preparing an overture for concert performance do you look at the whole opera as well, or treat the overture as a standalone piece?
There are couple of overtures which live a very separate concert life. For example—those of Mozart, Weber, Rossini, Verdi and of course some Wagner overtures. For me as a conductor it’s important to know what the piece is about when you start discovering it, but it is not necessary to know the entire opera if you are going to play just an overture.
You’re also doing Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto with Garrick Ohlsson. Did you work with him ahead of time, or does the collaboration with the soloist really start at the first rehearsal?
Usually the conductor and soloist meet each other just a couple of days before the concert, but I am very lucky that I was able to listen Garrick’s recording of Lutosławski concerto, since this is a very complicated one for the conductor. But I like this music very much and it’s probably my favorite piano concerto of the 20th century.
Last of all, you’re doing Shostakovich’s final symphony – the 15th. This piece contains quotes from Rossini and Wagner. Do you have a personal interpretation of the significance of these surprising passages?
The quotes in Shostakovich’s 15th are truly enigmas. This is a platform for an interpretation. I am not sure about the quote of Rossini’s Wilhelm Tell, but the Fate theme from Wagner’s Götterdammerung sounds really frightening. I think one should keep in the mind all the historical context of Shostakovich’s life and his demons. I have a feeling that the final movement of the symphony sounds like a farewell to life, it is very Mahlerian in its atmosphere. I can agree with the musicologists who believe that Shostakovich wrote this as a chronicle of his time in his music.